1 of 6 Mont. EMS volunteers who quit FD in protest speaks out

The former Worden Volunteer Fire Department member said tensions between legacy volunteers and new recruits culminated in the mass resignation


Rob Rogers
Billings Gazette, Mont.

WORDEN, Mont. — Fire officials in Worden are hopeful to move on from a schism in the volunteer fire department there that led to the loss of six volunteers earlier this week when they resigned to protest the dismissal of another volunteer.

Earlier this week, the department had to call in the Lockwood Fire Department to respond to single-vehicle wreck near Worden. No one reported injuries in the accident.

A former member of the Worden Volunteer Fire Department who quit in protest along with five other EMS volunteers has spoken out about his reasons for leaving.
A former member of the Worden Volunteer Fire Department who quit in protest along with five other EMS volunteers has spoken out about his reasons for leaving. (Photo/Worden Volunteer Fire Department)

Tensions between legacy volunteers and younger new recruits within the Worden department have been bubbling up for a while, said Andrew Zimmerman, who led the ambulance crew there. Zimmerman was one of the emergency medical service volunteers who resigned.

Issues came to a head last month when Joe Stratton, one of the department's volunteers, dressed out for a call wearing a helmet he had from his personal gear rather than one issued by the department, Zimmerman said.

The department has no policy banning personal gear; the only requirement is that it meet modern fire protection specifications, which it did, Zimmerman said.

However, the department's assistant fire chief, Doug O'Donnell, ordered Stratton, who had been with the department for eight months, to wear a department helmet. Stratton refused and that led to an argument in which O'Donnell poked Stratton in the chest.

"I think he was trying to make a point," said Worden Volunteer Fire Department Chief Lance Taylor.

After the incident, according to Zimmerman, the assistant chief acknowledged the physical contact and offered to resign. Instead, a couple days later he announced his intention to stay and then told the department if he goes he would take other other firefighters with him, Zimmerman said.

Stratton had come to the end of his probationary period with the department and the Fire Service Area Board was getting ready to vote on whether to bring him on as a full member of the department or end his contract.

Even though it's a volunteer fire department, the firefighters and EMTs are still official members of the organization and can be kept on with the department or dismissed, depending on their performance.

After hearing of the incident with the helmet at the meeting, board member Keenan O'Donnell made a motion terminate Stratton's contract. The vote was split and so Stratton was dismissed, Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman and Stratton are examining the vote. They believe board bylaws stipulate that termination votes must be unanimous.

Either way, it's a deeply frustrating situation.

"This department isn't designed to build people up," Zimmerman said. "It's designed to push people out."

Zimmerman believes the department needs a policy manual and written procedures to give definition to the organization and help guide the actions and behavior of the firefighters and EMTs.

A department handbook would go a long way to resolving many of these issues, modernizing the department and helping to retain younger volunteers, he said.

For his part, Taylor hopes his department can repair the rift and place the community back at the center of what they do. He also acknowledged that both sides had been wronged to some extent.

The younger recruits "haven't been treated very well," Taylor said.

But he's hoping they will be patient as the department works to modernize itself.

"When you're younger you expect crap to change like that," Taylor said. "It doesn't work that way."

The older volunteers can be gruff and resistant to change, he said. But both sides have to work together if the department is going to continue to serve the Worden community.

"Everybody just needs to take a deep, deep, deep breath," he said.

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(c)2021 the Billings Gazette (Billings, Mont.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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